LOSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Max Verstappen believes his third Formula One title is his best yet.
Clinching the championship in a sprint race Saturday in Qatar didn’t pack the emotional impact of his dramatic, controversial last-lap overtake of Lewis Hamilton for the 2021 title. Still, the Red Bull driver thinks his relentlessly consistent 2023 season has been his greatest so far.
“This one is the best one,” Verstappen said. “I think the first one was the most emotional one because that’s when your dreams are fulfilled in F1. But this one definitely in my opinion has been my best year also for consecutive wins and stuff. The car itself has been probably in the best shape as well. This one is probably (the one) I’m most proud of in a way because of consistency.”
Verstappen finished second in the sprint race in Qatar and his teammate Sergio Perez, the only driver who could catch him in the standings, crashed out after being struck by Esteban Ocon’s Alpine.
Oscar Piastri won the sprint — a rare achievement for a rookie, even if Verstappen’s title overshadowed it — and his McLaren teammate Lando Norris was third.
The title race was all but over long before Verstappen made sure of it Saturday. His run of 10 straight wins, an all-time F1 record, from May to September left him far ahead in the standings. A third title ranks him among some of the sport’s all-time greats, level with the likes of Ayrton Senna and Niki Lauda.
“I achieved more than I could have ever even dreamed of or any goals that I wanted to achieve in F1,” Verstappen said. “So I’m loving the moment. We’ll see where we end up. It’s already way more than I ever thought I could achieve, so it’s perfect.”
Verstappen parked up in the pit lane and stood atop his car with three fingers raised on his right hand before going to celebrate with his team.
After Sunday’s race, there are still five Grands Prix left this season
Verstappen started third Saturday but was slow off the line and was in fifth after the first lap before fighting his way through the field.
Perez was in a three-way fight with Ocon and the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg midway through the sprint when Ocon clipped Hulkenberg’s wheel and span into Perez on the outside of the corner. Both Ocon and Perez’s cars were left stuck in the gravel.
F1 organized a light show in the pit lane to mark Verstappen’s title, but since it was a sprint race and not a full Grand Prix, there was no podium ceremony. Instead, Verstappen, Piastri and Norris were awarded plaques for placing in the top three.
Saturday’s result had immediate clarity, something which was missing from the aftermath of the thrilling and much-disputed battle with Hamilton which saw Verstappen win his first title in Abu Dhabi in 2021. And when Verstappen took the title at the Japanese Grand Prix last year, it was amid confusion over how many points he should get after a red flag.
Both the venue in Qatar and the format are modern additions to F1. The Losail circuit and the sprint events — which Verstappen has opposed in the past — were both added to the calendar in Verstappen’s first title year in 2021.
Perez seemed capable of challenging Verstappen when he won two of the first four races of this season, but hasn’t won since the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in April. Perez has been let down by frequent mistakes in qualifying. Eight times in 17 championship rounds, he has failed to reach the final qualifying session which decides the top 10 places, leaving him at a major disadvantage on race day.
Piastri followed up his first Grand Prix podium in Japan two weeks ago with his first victory in an F1 race, even if the sprint doesn’t count as an official Grand Prix win. “It’s a bit of a weird feeling because it’s not a race win. It does feel a little bit strange,” he said.
Piastri started on pole position but was overtaken by Mercedes’ George Russell before retaking first place as Russell’s soft-compound tires started to degrade.
Ahead of the Qatar Grand Prix race on Sunday, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, said Saturday it could mandate at least three pit stops with tire changes. That follows concerns that the side walls of the Pirelli tires have been damaged when cars run over the pointed “pyramid” kerbs used in Qatar.
The track has already been narrowed at one point to stop cars running quite as wide over the kerbs. The FIA said it would take a final decision about Sunday’s race after it and Pirelli can study the tires which were used Saturday.
For the new three-time champion, it’s a question of how to balance celebrations with the reality of having to race again Sunday. He will start on pole.
“I guess quite a few sparkling waters tonight,” Verstappen said with a smile, when asked how he’d mark the occasion. “But I’ll be here tomorrow.”
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